Few audiences can recall a more thrilling sight than the words of “To Be Continued” gracing their televisions. There’s simply little that can compare to the nervous excitement of your favorite show leaving you with that all too intense cliffhanger to eagerly await the week after. Why shouldn’t we get more feelings like that for our video-games?
In spite of its rarity, episodic content is nothing new to the gaming industry. While popularized (if not temporarily ended) by Valve’s episodic treatment of its Half-Life series, episodic gaming’s roots can be roughly traced to the developer behind the Duke Nukem and Wolfenstein 3D series, 3D Realms, or Apogee as it was back in the day. Starting with Kingdom of Kroz in 1987, 3D Realms began distributing its games in episode format, selling several episodes for free as part of their “shareware” deal and later offering discounts to people who bought multiple episodes at once. Shelling out the first episode for free, the customer would pay for the rest in what would be called the Apogee Model.
Since then, episodic gaming’s been a roller coaster reminiscent of the highs and lows attached to its success. While the painful absence of a follow-up to Valve’s Half Life 2: Episode 2 might have disillusioned plenty of developers to the formula for a seemingly indefinite period, it’s Telltale’s recent success that’s drawn the most attention. Beginning with its first critical hit of Sam and Max: Hit the Road, Telltale’s episodic adaptation of the series produced several “seasons” a few weeks apart from one another, leading to its now long history of licensed episodic franchises ranging from Back to the Future to The Walking Dead.
The latter’s widely regarded as one of the best games of 2012 along with winning of over 70 game of the year awards, perhaps in no small part thanks to its television-like quality. With five episodes released so far with a second season on its way, each of The Walking Dead’s episodes are characterized by a not so subtle TV style “previously on the walking dead” recap of players’ choices throughout the season. Granting players such heavy input in its storyline not only lent players a presence in its world, but allowed for an addictive emotional quality that kept them invested in the series financially as well as mentally. Rather than a one-time, cinematic experience told in one breath, the series could carry over a story-arc that spanned a course of moment to moment timeframe. Such breaks could more effectively carry with it an emotional weight that spoke to players fears and anticipations of what was to come, as with Telltale’s recent finale for the first episode of The Wolf Among Us.
Like the TV shows that many games like Telltale’s are becoming, there are a wide variety of advantages, both fiscally and critically for the studio. First episodes can be treated like a pilot, containing a small, yet satisfying amount of gameplay to gauge players’ reception. If it fails, then the studio's just saved themselves (and fans) the waste of spending a serious amount of time and money into a bad project. If it’s a hit, developers can additionally react to the community feedback between episodes, improving upon gameplay, enhancing the graphics, or fixing any bugs. That can be no more applicable to Sonic the Hedgehog 4‘s first “season” of our favorite blue blur. Consisting of two episodes released 2 years apart, both were wildly different games best explained by fans mixed reactions to episode 1. That’s not to say that the final episode turned out smoothly, but conceptually it does demonstrate the fan power behind the episodic model.
That blueprint’s been put to work more than it ever has in years, from the six episode release of the psychological horror game Alan Wake to 343 Industries’ episodic Spartan Ops of Halo 4. All the same, there’s the nagging question for developers of how flexible episodic models are for all game designs. Halo 4 highly linear, level-based structure lends it an inherently easy game to define where one episode ends and another begins. By contrast, open world games like Assassin’s Creed or Grand Theft Auto remain rather complicated when players are given free reign to travel to their heart’s content anywhere on a map.
Pricing is even more so, especially if the game continues on for a while. It could be quite expensive for the consumer in the long run buying the series on a pay-per-episode basis and many might give up if left cash-strapped. An even greater dilemma is that of developers’ reliance on episodes’ sales to further fund the series’ own development. If earlier episodes fail to sell, the resources for future episodes may suffer or disappear all together, forcing developers to retract their promises of future episodes and cut storylines permanently. This pain is no more evident than in Valve’s Half Life 2. Episode One was released in summer 2006 while the next episode was not released until fall 2007--hardly timely, and continued absence of its assumed third episode, fans are still left with gaping holes left unfilled by Valve. Other episodic series aborted early all together include Sin Episodes, Insecticide, and Telltale’s very first adventure game of Bone. Never heard of them? Exactly. If a rolling the dice on a single game is a risk, then episodic serie require doing so for each episode.
There’s no question that the episodic model’s a bold proposition, but ambition breeds the kind of creativity that the industry, as well as its consumers, thrive upon. In light of the astounding successes of shows like cult shows like Breaking Bad or Stargate, there’s simply no excuse to regard television as the lesser sibling of film as much as episodic gaming is so to the one-shot video-game blockbusters. Nothing worthwhile is ever made to be easy, and the same can be said for the incredible rewards of episodic gaming. Companies like Telltale and 343 have already taken the first steps. How many others are ready to follow?